Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Book Review: The Divine Yes

Book Title: The Divine Yes
       
Author: E. Stanley Jones
       
Date: 1975
       
Publisher: Abingdon Press
       
ISBN: 0-687-10988-4
       
Length: 160 pages
       
Quote: “I cannot die now. I have to live to complete another book—The Divine Yes.”
       
Dr. Stanley Jones organized Methodist missions, which he called “Christian ashrams,” in India. He had written more than two dozen books before 1971, when, at 87, he had a stroke. After the stroke he insisted that his daughter, Eunice Jones Matthews, help him finish this last book during the fourteen months before he died. Mrs. Mathews’ introduction reports that he tried writing parts of the manuscript with his right hand, but couldn’t see well enough to write legibly and had to dictate the book on tape.

An ill-natured person commented on the Amazon page that the resulting book was "unjointed" and "free of logic." Er, um...it's not Mere Christianity by a long stretch, but then it never claims to be. It's the last book by a celebrity author who'd promised his fans, who included Gandhi and Martin Luther King, one more book. That's what you might like, and what you might hate, in a nutshell.
       
The easiest way to describe how The Divine Yes differs from other books of evangelical Christian sermons is to remember that much of it was written in India; it reflects a dialogue with Hindu audiences. There are quotes from the Vedas and references to respected Asian writers including Rabindranath Tagore, Keshab Chandra Sen, Srinavasa Shastri, and Swami Vivekananda, and some leaders who are left anonymous for obvious reasons.
       
Most American books are U.S.-centered. We can travel so far without a passport that many of us live our lives without ever having a passport. We have an abstract idea that people live and things happen in other countries, but it’s not quite real to us. We tend to have muddled impressions of countries whose names sound alike, whether they’re neighbors like Zambia and Zimbabwe, or near-polar opposites like Belarus and Belize. Jones was American, and this is an American book, but it’s not U.S.-centered. Jones had listened to what people in many other countries were saying. Sometimes he agreed with them, sometimes he debated with them; anyway, his book has a degree of international literacy seldom achieved by American writers.
       
The sermon that forms a sort of outline for this book is given as chapter one: Some people had presented Christianity as a series of “no’s,” and Jones wanted to present it as a “yes.” During the last forty years Christians have heard many variations on this theme. It wasn’t really new in the 1970s either; as Kathleen Norris shared in the 1990s, medieval writers found a “yes” quality in even monastic Christianity. It was fresh in the 1970s, a period when the word “sermon” had picked up the image of “fierce, though perhaps Bible-based, denunciation.” During this period some Christians apparently thought “You can’t get to Heaven on roller skates; you’d roll right past the pearly gates” was serious doctrine rather than comic nonsense.
       
Why did so many preachers focus on “don’t” sermons? Possibly because people who’d already said “yes” to the “yes” of Christianity wondered what more they were to learn at church. In the 1970s one of my relatives announced that she’d graduated from Sunday School. My parents tracked down obscure points of biblical scholarship, and took an interest in fringe groups. Preachers whose audiences did not include real Bible mavens like us, apparently, found it easier to offer “more truth” to the converted by preaching against sins great and small.
       
An old joke that has multiple versions may be useful here. The story is that one of these preachers, no great scholar, took a job in Kentucky. He preached a good sermon on the evils of liquor. Next week half the congregation stayed home. He asked what he’d done wrong and was told, “Why, half of us work at the distillery. Don’t preach against liquor again.” So he preached against gambling, and the head deacon said, “Half of the people who came here today raise race horses. Please don’t preach against gambling again.” So he preached against murder—and the head deacon said, “Half of the men who came to church today were involved in those coal miners’ strikes, on one side or another. You’ve got to do something different or we’ll have no church left.”
       
In one version of the joke the preacher went home, read Congo Kitabu, and preached against fishing with dynamite. The head deacon said, “Preacher, what is the matter with you? Don’t you know the only men who still come to church are the ones who spend all their time ‘fishing,’ and the river’s so depleted that the only time they catch a fish is when one of them can steal a stick of dynamite?” So the preacher gave up and joined the Navy.
       
In another version, the preacher’s next sermon was against joining the Communist Party, and the parishioners began to come back to church, so the preacher spent the rest of his career denouncing the Communist Party.
       
There are other versions...what I know is that, as a young Christian, I was confused by the “yes, yes, yes” school of preaching and teaching. As an adult I can read this book in context and realize that baptized Christians were supposed to buy it to give to all their unbaptized friends. As a teenager I remember wondering why people gave such books to me. The Divine Yes was written to make Christians, not to educate Christians already made...although it does give Christian book lovers lots of obscure foreign books to track down and read.

Accordingly, The Divine Yes is recommended to vaguely spiritual people who aren’t sure whether they want to be Christians. It particularly addresses Buddhists, Hindus, and Humanists. It is also recommended to older people who may want a souvenir of Stanley Jones’ work, or to younger people who may have heard his name and be interested in one of his books. If you buy The Divine Gift for a young Christian, you may want to identify it as a book to read for its historic value and pass on.